Category Archives: Shakespeare



(Michael Paulson’s article originally appeared in The New York Times, 9/6; Photo: The New York Times; via and  Pam Green.)

Actor Jessika Williams in Staunton, Va., Sept. 3, 2020. Williams, who said she not only wanted the title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” but needed the work, made a decision no actor wants to make: She resigned from the Actors’ Equity union, potentially giving up a variety of benefits and protections, to take the part. Melanie Metz/The New York Times.

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jessika D. Williams has wanted to play the title role in “Othello” since she was a teenager.

Now she’s 35, with quotes from Shakespeare tattooed down both arms, and after years studying in Scotland, working in Britain and traveling the United States by van to perform in regional theaters, she finally got the part this summer, at the American Shakespeare Center, a destination theater in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

There was only one hitch, but it was a big one: the coronavirus pandemic.

Actors’ Equity, the labor union representing performers and stage managers, barred its members from in-person performances around the country, citing safety concerns. The union then made a handful of exceptions, mostly in New England, where infection rates are low; the Virginia theater was among scores denied a waiver.

The American Shakespeare Center, located in a rural community with few cases and with a company of actors who signed an “isolation covenant” and live together, decided to proceed anyway, using nonunion actors and elaborate safety protocols.

Williams, who said she not only wanted the role but needed the work, made a decision no actor wants to make: She resigned from the union, potentially giving up a variety of benefits and protections, to take the part.

Now she is part of a troupe performing “Othello” and “Twelfth Night” in repertory, with each production being staged indoors, outdoors and online, so patrons can choose however they are most comfortable seeing the show. (The indoor stage, called the Blackfriars Playhouse, is described by the company as “the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater.”)

Actors’ Equity has been critical. The union accused the nonprofit theater of abandoning its commitment to safety and listed it as among a handful that are “no longer Equity producers.”

But the American Shakespeare Center sees the situation differently, noting that in normal years, it employs not only Equity and non-Equity actors at its home in Staunton, Virginia, but also a non-Equity touring ensemble that performs in Staunton as well as on the road. When the pandemic prompted the theater to cancel its main season, it decided to come up with a safety plan and stage the two plays now running with the nonunion company.

In a phone interview from Virginia, Williams talked calmly and confidently about her decision, the “Othello” production and the pandemic. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’ve been thinking about playing Othello since you were a kid. Why?

I was like, “Oh, there’s a Black character in Shakespeare? I’ve got to play it!”

What do you think the significance is of playing the role as a Black woman?

I was doing a lot of research into the men who have played this before me, and something that came up a lot was, how do you play this beautiful person and not fall into the trap of perpetuating the idea that Black people are overemotional, monstrous, barbarous creatures? As a woman, I feel like I was able to get around the fear of that, because it didn’t have to do with being a man, it just had to do with being a human being. Also, it’s just really great to hand a female a role of this size — we’ve seen female Hamlets, female Richard IIs, we just recently saw a female Lear — and I think that’s important that women can tackle these epic roles.

You opted to resign as a member of your union to take the role. Can you explain what happened?

It was really sad, actually. To me it felt like Equity was assuming that I was being thrust into an unsafe situation, and that’s not how I felt at all.

But at the end of the day, I wasn’t receiving any unemployment, and I needed a paycheck. I live in a van and travel from job to job, and that had just broken down. And I have a lot of love for this place and a lot of love for the people in the community. It’s a small town, and the theater drives the restaurants and the small businesses. And I chose to stay.

It was a really, really tough decision for me. I really hoped that Equity would understand, and I hope that they will understand in the future. But ultimately I needed a job, and there weren’t a lot of other opportunities, and I felt a lot safer at the ASC than if I had to pick up a job at a grocery store or go work a service industry job and find my all the way across the country during the pandemic and move in with my mother, who is elderly and at risk.

It felt like the right thing to do, and I don’t regret it.

Do you feel safe?

I do, actually. I really do. Staunton has been pretty low as far as COVID cases are concerned. We all live in one building. The theater is a two-minute walk from where we all stay. No one is traveling. No one is taking public transportation. It’s scary at times, but that’s the nature of the world we’re living in.

What would you want the union to hear from you?

I wish that they had considered it more thoroughly. I completely understand from their standpoint — from a very New York-centric and Broadway-centric perspective — that it just doesn’t seem doable. They couldn’t come down here because of the travel restrictions, but they don’t really know what our theater is like or what this community is like. I wish they had considered our SafeStart protocols a little more thoroughly. I just hope that Equity understands my position in choosing to jump into survival mode and take care of myself, my immediate community, and the theater.

In this production, Othello is not the only character played by an actor of color. How do you think having a diverse cast affects the way we see the play?

I feel like it eliminates a lot of preconceived notions of exactly what the play is about. It’s not that the play isn’t racist, but the play isn’t actually about racism — it’s about a lot. And I think that having other members of the cast of color helps to pull out and highlight other aspects of the human condition that Shakespeare is touching on in this play.

Why are you so drawn to Shakespeare’s work?

The words to me have always felt really visceral. Speaking the text does things to my body. I’m not a scholar, but the more plays I dig into, I really think that Shakespeare had a good grip on humanity, and even though it’s stuck and confined in gender roles and history and tropes and stock characters, he really does get to the essence of the human condition.

You and the other actors live together in a pandemic bubble. What has that been like?

I feel like I’m married to every single individual in this company right now. It is tough. It can be isolating. But we do our best. We bake for each other. We cook for each other. And we really rally together when someone is having a hard time.

Your audience is masked. How does that affect your ability to relate to them?

We don’t get that collective reaction. It makes you have to work harder. If I’m going to take something to the audience, or ask them a question, I really have to look into their eyes, and I might not know what I’m getting back. But if someone is leaning forward, or leaning back, we can still gather information.

What are your expectations for next summer?

I do hope that the American theater gets up and running. I do hope that Equity continues to work with these smaller regional theaters, because I don’t think that there is a “one size fits all” here. I hope that we can get people to gather again. We’ve got to find a way to continue to educate and enlighten and entertain.

© 2020 The New York Times Company


(Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh; this article appeared in Brewminate, 8/27; photo: Royal Opera; via Pam Green.)

Macbeth appears to have cleverly positioned Scotland between her more powerful neighbors yet he did not isolate Scotland either.


Mac Bethad mac Findlaích, (died August 15, 1057), was King of Scots (also known as the King of Alba) from 1040 until his death. He is best known as the subject of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth and the many works it has inspired, although the play is historically inaccurate. Shakespeare’ Macbeth immortalized the Scottish king but as a dark, tormented character driven all but insane by his own foul deed, the crime of regicide. Separating the man from the myth is a challenge for any historian. What can be deduced is that he is much more likely to have slain Duncan, his half-brother and predecessor, in battle than to have murdered him. He may well be credited with forging Alba into a viable state, transforming what had been a loose clan confederacy into a nation where people recognized common ties and loyalties across the sparsely populated and often inaccessible hills and vales. As did later Scottish kings, Macbeth appears to have cleverly positioned Scotland between her more powerful neighbors yet he did not isolate Scotland either. He encouraged trade, improved the kingdom’s infrastructure, entered a political alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and strengthened the Church by negotiating a direct relationship with Rome.

This legacy, one that later kings would make their own, informs a tendency for Scotland to see herself as a secure and stable base from which people can participate in a global community. For much of its history, Scotland struggled with Scandinavia and England to assert her freedom and right of self-determination. Under Macbeth, Scotland was free but not inward looking—her face was set towards the world. Increasingly, her commercial agents would travel throughout Europe. This desire for self-governance alongside commitment to participation in a global economy continues to characterize Scottish identity. When more people see themselves as members of an inter-dependent world, with common responsibilities for the welfare of all, people will shift from selfishly thinking about their own interests, to considering everyone’s needs.

Origins and Family

Macbeth was the son of Findláech mac Ruaidrí, Mormaer of Moray. His mother is sometimes supposed to have been a daughter of the Scottish king Malcolm II (Máel Coluim mac Cináeda). This may be derived from Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland which makes Macbeth’s mother a granddaughter, rather than a daughter, of Malcolm.[1] Macbeth was probably Duncan’s half-brother.

Macbeth’s paternal ancestry can be traced in the Irish genealogies contained in the Rawlinson B.502 manuscript:

Mac Bethad son of Findláech son of Ruadrí son of Domnall son of Morggán son of Cathamal son of Ruadrí son of Ailgelach son of Ferchar son of Fergus son of Nechtan son of Colmán son of Báetán son of Eochaid son of Muiredach son of Loarn son of Eirc son of Eochaid Muinremuir.[2]

This should be compared with the ancestry claimed for Malcolm II which traces back to Loarn’s brother Fergus Mór.[2] Several of Macbeth’s ancestors can tentatively be identified: Ailgelach son of Ferchar as Ainbcellach mac Ferchair and Ferchar son of Fergus (correctly, son of Feredach son of Fergus) as Ferchar Fota, while Muiredach son of Loarn mac Eirc, his son Eochaid and Eochaid’s son Báetán are given in the Senchus fer n-Alban.[3] So, while the descendants of King Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín) saw themselves as being descended from the Cenél nGabráin of Dál Riata, the northern kings of Moray traced their origins back to the rival Cenél Loairn.[4]

Macbeth’s father Findláech was killed about 1020 – one obituary calls him king of Alba – most probably by his successor as ruler of Moray, his nephew Máel Coluim mac Máil Brigte (Malcolm, son of Máel Brigte).[5] Máel Coluim died in 1029; although the circumstances are unknown, violence is not suggested; he is called king of Alba by the Annals of Tigernach.[6] However, king of Alba is by no means the most impressive title used by the Irish annals. Many deaths reported in the annals in the eleventh century are of rulers called Ard Rí Alban – High-King of Scotland. It is not entirely certain whether Máel Coluim was followed by his brother Gille Coemgáin or by Macbeth.

Gille Coemgáin’s death in 1032 was not reported by the Annals of Tigernach, but the Annals of Ulster record:

Gille Coemgáin son of Máel Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.[7]

Some have supposed that Macbeth was the perpetrator. Others have noted the lack of information in the Annals, and the subsequent killings at the behest of King Malcolm II to suggest other answers.[8] Gille Coemgáin had been married to Gruoch, daughter of Boite mac Cináeda (“Boite son of Kenneth”), with whom he had a son, the future king Lulach.

It is not clear whether Gruoch’s father was a son of King Kenneth II (Cináed mac Maíl Coluim) (d. 1005) or of King Kenneth III (Cináed mac Duib)(d. 997), either is possible chronologically.[9] After Gille Coemgáin’s death, Macbeth married his widow, Gruoch, and took Lulach as his stepson. Gruoch’s brother, or nephew (his name is not recorded), was killed in 1033 by Malcolm II.[10]

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PLAYLIST:… SUPPORT THE CAST AND CREW: HOMEPAGE:… Follow: @TSMGOnlineLive on Twitter | @TheShowMustGoOnline on Facebook/Insta TIME IN AWARDS: ENTER: The Show Must Go Online – Shakespeare for everyone: a global movement creating new productions of the Complete Plays, performed live every Wednesday, free forever CAST: HENRY PERCY “HOTSPUR” – Mark Laverty HENRY “HAL”, PRINCE OF WALES – Seb Yates-Cridland @seb_wyc KING HENRY IV – Andy McLeod @AndyMcleod09 THOMAS PERCY, EARL OF WORCESTER – Gillian Barmes SIR JOHN FALSTAFF – Jack Baldwin @JonJackBaldwin OWEN GLENDOWER – Leo Atkin SIR RICHARD VERNON – Sakuntala Ramanee EDMUND MORTIMER, EARL OF MARCH – Naila Mansour @NailaMansouroff LADY PERCY – Natalie Ann Boyd @natalieannboyd ARCHIBALD, EARL OF DOUGLAS – Julie Martis @juliemartis SIR WALTER BLUNT – Callum Lloyd @CallumLloydT EARL OF WESTMORLAND – Shamiso Mushambi @ShamisoMushambi EDWARD POINS – Duncan Hess @TheRealMrHess HENRY PERCY, EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND – Simon Balcon RICHARD SCROOP, ARCHBISHOP OF YORK – Henry Jenkinson @henryjenkinson BARDOLPH – Daniel Cordova @dancordova ENSEMBLE – Rhiannon Willans @rnwillans, Jason Blackwater @JasonBlackwater, Philippa Hammond @philippa_uk, Sasha Wilson @_sashawilson SWINGS – Danny Adams @dannyeadams, Phoebe Elliott @phoebeelliott96 GUEST SPEAKER: Eric Rasmussen Eric Rasmussen is Foundation Professor of English at the University of Nevada. He is the co-editor, along with Sir Jonathan Bate, of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare. PRODUCTION TEAM: Director: Robert Myles @robmyles Producer: Sarah Peachey @PeacheyLDN Casting Director: Sydney Aldridge @sydneyamee Stage Manager & Master of Props: Emily Ingram @EmilyCIngram Fight Direction/Stunts: Yarit Dor & Enric Ortuno @YaritDor @EnricOrtuno Sound Design: Adam Woodhams @AdamWoodhams1 Guest Speaker Curation: Ben Crystal @bencrystal Associate Producers: Natalie Chan @NatalieNat_Chan Matthew Rhodes @RhodesTheatre Social Media & Patreon Manager: Ruth Page @ruthfpage Infrastructure Support: Dr Ed Guccione, Dr Kay Guccione PR: Kate Morley @KMorleyPR Welsh Translations: Lynwen Haf Roberts


Stratford Festival

King John house program:… When the rule of a hedonistic king is questioned, rebellion ensues, culminating in the chilling attempt to commit an atrocity against a child, whose mother’s anguished grief cannot atone for her blinkered ambitions for her son. Don’t miss the rare opportunity to see Shakespeare’s King John, in this magnificent, “deliciously contemporary” production.

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After seeing this production of ‘King John’, on 6/21, Father’s Day, Bob Shuman has now seen all the plays of Shakespeare, including ‘Cardenio’.


(Mark Brown’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/10.)

Location of the Red Lion, which predated the Globe, has been subject of debate for years

Archaeologists believe they have found remains of one of the most elusive of all known Elizabethan structures – the earliest purpose-built playhouse in Britain and a prototype for a theatre that staged plays by a young William Shakespeare.

The Red Lion is thought to have been built around 1567 and probably played host to travelling groups of players. Its precise location has been the subject of conjecture and debate for a number of years, but archaeologists are as certain as they can be that they have found its remains at a site in the East End of London where a self-storage facility once stood.

“It is not what I was expecting when I turned up to do an excavation in Whitechapel, I have to be honest,” said Stephen White, the lead archaeologist on a team from UCL Archaeology South-East. “This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on.”

The Red Lion playhouse was created by John Brayne, who nine years later went on to construct the Theatre in Shoreditch with James Burbage, the father of the Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage. The Theatre was the first permanent home for acting troupes and staged plays by Shakespeare in 1590. After a dispute it was dismantled and its timbers used in the construction of the more famous Globe on Bankside.

Before the Globe and the Theatre, there was the Red Lion, which was in effect a prototype, said White.

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Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

(Matthew Aucoin’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)


an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019


an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019

Heart Chamber

an opera by Chaya Czernowin, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, November 15–December 6, 2019


Bo Skovhus as Lear and Annette Dasch as Cordelia in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at the Paris Opera

Last November, having just put the final touches on Eurydice, the opera I’d been working on for several years, I paid a visit to Europe to hear operas by three fellow composers, none of whose stage works are performed in America with any regularity. In spite of the uncanny ease with which music can be distributed online, and in spite of the popular notion of music as a “universal language,” contemporary opera in America can feel like an insular endeavor: the flip side of many American opera companies’ laudable support for homegrown composers is a cautiousness that verges on xenophobia. When it comes to new works, the thinking goes, why import a challenging piece in a foreign language when a local composer could write one in English? In past centuries, American companies almost exclusively imported European works; these days, new European operas are sometimes assumed to be excessively strong meat for the teeth of American audiences.

The chaos of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the following essay, written before it began, feel suddenly like an artifact from a distant time. This crisis will wreak havoc in all sectors; for the world of the arts, it is already a devastation. Classical music has long been an art form centered on live performance, ever more so since the collapse of the classical recording industry, and it’s hard to imagine when music lovers will again be willing to form the human petri dish that is a concert audience.

Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.

Composers who adapt Shakespeare must inevitably perform surgery on the Bard’s lengthy, poetically exuberant plays: Verdi cut an entire act to turn Othello into Otello; Thomas Adès and Meredith Oakes condensed the winding rhythms of Shakespeare’s pentameter into clipped doggerel for their adaptation of The Tempest. The German composer Aribert Reimann, who composed his Lear in the late 1970s at the request of the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performs his surgery with a sledgehammer. He and his librettist, Claus H. Henneberg, burn away nearly all traces of compassion and complexity from the play’s more sympathetic characters, including Lear, and abandon the play’s essential trajectory, of a tenuous political order unraveling into chaos, instead depicting a world that is darkly chaotic from the outset. The leveling winds of the heath blow all night through Reimann’s score.

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(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/9; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — We live in unprecedented times — or so they tell us. The coronavirus lockdown, which began in Britain on March 23, has led to the cancellation of all theater performances through May 31, at least. What happens after remains to be seen.

But this is hardly the first time the city’s playhouses have been closed: During Shakespeare’s time, and then again during World War II, to name two examples, they shut their doors in response to different calamities. But they reopened in due course, affirming a heartening capacity for cultural rebirth that speaks ever more urgently to us today.

The plagues of the Shakespearean age did not allow for the contemporary comforts of social media or Zoom, but an artist’s need to create continued then as it surely is doing now: Shakespeare kept busy writing, retreating to the insular world of poetry and the comfort of home.

His theater, the Globe, not subject to the health and safety requirements of the modern age, was a vector for contagion, not to mention inflammation: It burned down in 1613 and was rebuilt, only to be shut three decades later by the Puritans, who represented an obstacle to performance of a censorious rather than viral sort. That edict was eventually lifted in 1660 when the high spirits of the Restoration ushered in a new theatrical age.

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(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/1.)

With theatres closed, now is the time to find pleasure in Shakespeare’s texts. His first fans used them for chat-up lines – and read the plays without the baggage of Bardolatry

That Shakespeare wrote for the theatre and that his plays should be enjoyed on the stage not the page has become the standard rallying cry of directors, teachers and academics. “I don’t think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre,” Sir Ian McKellen advised in 2015. And if actors bring Shakespeare to life, according to Royal Shakespeare Company director Greg Doran, the benefits are mutual: advocating a “Shakespeare gym” earlier this year, Doran suggested that without proper opportunity to perform Shakespeare, the craft of acting itself could “diminish or get lost”.

But this is a modern perspective. Powerful advocates for Shakespeare in the past were less convinced by the medium of theatre. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century lexicographer and editor of the plays, felt that while comedy was often better experienced in the theatre, tragedy rarely was. Charles Lamb, who with his sister Mary wrote the popular children’s Tales from Shakespeare, suggested that “the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever”. When we watch King Lear, he suggested, we see merely the mundanely pitiful “old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick”, but when “we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear”. Deep engagement with the plays meant private study, not public spectacle.

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(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Spectator, 3/6; photo: The Spectator.)

Shakespeare’s single explicit reference to America is found in The Comedy of Errors. The two Dromios are anatomizing the unseen ‘kitchen wench’ Nell, who is ‘spherical, like a globe’: ‘I could find out countries in her’, says one Syracusan brother. ‘Where America?’ asks his twin. The reply, ‘O, sir, upon her nose, all o’erembellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires’ embodies early colonial fantasies about the famed riches of El Dorado.

The first record of a Shakespeare text in America comes a century later, and the first known production — an amateur run of Romeo and Juliet in the Revenge Meeting House, New York — three decades after that. But by 1898 a book published in Chicago could claim not only that The Tempest, in particular, ‘has an entirely American basis and character’, but further, that ‘America made possible a Shakespeare’.

Institutions, from Hollywood to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, strengthened this reciprocal bond. Whenthe showman P.T Barnum sent an agent to Stratford-upon-Avon ‘armed with the cash and full powers to buy Shakespeare’s house, if possible, and to have it carefully taken down, packed in boxes and shipped to New York’, America’s possessive embrace of Shakespeare seemed complete.

James Shapiro’s expert and readable intervention in this long history is organized around defining moments and themes in American life. He shows how, for example, apparently literary arguments over Desdemona’s relationship with Othello mediated toxic disputes about interracial marriage in the early 19th century. He explores how Civil War attitudes to Caesar’s assassination influenced John Wilkes Booth to cast himself as an American Brutus murdering the tyrannical Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Kiss Me Kate offers Shapiro a lens to analyze the changing role of women in the workplace and in marriage after World War Two. Harvey Weinstein’s creepy off-screen influence on the plot of Shakespeare in Love places this blockbuster fictional biography of the playwright at the heart of the #MeToo movement.

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